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‘Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV’ is conventional ode to avant-garde legend

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MARCH 24, 2023

Grade: 3.0/5.0

First, he dunks his head in a bucket of paint. Next, he slashes an audience member’s necktie to pieces. Finally, he runs out of the theater. Korean avant-garde artist Nam June Paik was a loveable oddball, passionate Marxist and alleged creative genius. Greatly respected by members of the avant-garde community, the late icon was infamous for deconstructing electronic media as a means of engaging in social critique — and for being the first one to do so. 

The documentary “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV,” which screened at Sundance this year, follows Paik from his birthplace of Seoul, Korea, to his deathbed in Miami, Florida. Unlike Paik’s genre-defying artistic style, the documentary maintains a straightforward and academic tone throughout the duration of its clean hour and 47 minutes. This journalistic proclivity is perhaps influenced by director Amanda Kim’s background as a creative director for Vice Media — an informative entertainment outlet known for its quick and to-the-point storytelling.

Paik was born into a wealthy Korean business family, though he often referred to himself as a “poor man.” The artist, who grew up in the early 20th century, was majorly impacted by the Korean War. He and his family fled Korea in 1950, which allowed Paik to study at the University of Tokyo and complete a thesis on composer Arnold Schoenberg. Before Paik became a multimedia pioneer of the avant-garde, he was a classically trained and highly gifted musician. Though impressive, the artist’s technical skills are often overlooked in favor of his dubiously innovative video art. 

In typical “starving artist” fashion, Paik packed up and moved to New York to immerse himself in the growing avant-garde community. He befriended John Cage, George Maciunas, Allen Ginsberg and Charlotte Moorman, all of whom were delighted to collaborate with Paik on his wildest creations. During the process of obtaining a visa, Paik wrote a letter to Cage that read, “Dear J.C., it is not easy to get the U.S. visa for South Korean citizen. I must have recommendations V.I.P. or V.V.I.P. Therefore, I beg your recommendation.” 

The greatest strength of this documentary rests in its detailed archival research, which offers an unforeseen glimpse into the personal tribulations of Paik’s life. Widely regarded as the “father of video art,” the artist has had his works featured in museums across the world. Intimate notes such as this one, however, have seldom seen the light of day.

At the height of his career, Paik tinkered with televisions — unraveling wires and smashing the notion of a “flat” screen. He created fluid electronic images and developed a mastery over the mechanisms of technology. Ultimately, Paik’s goal was to criticize the singularity of mass media and inspire his generation to engage more critically with television as an artistic medium. The documentary never resists an opportunity to state the importance of Paik’s work: The inspiration for commercials, music videos and feature films alike, the artist certainly made his mark on the media sphere.

But alas, Paik was unable to reap all the benefits of his cultural power. An immigrant and working creative, the artist suffered from health conditions that could have been treated if not for a lack of healthcare. Paik’s case marks yet another example of a person whose quality of life was robbed by America’s exorbitant red tape. 

All in all, “Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV” is as educational as it is entertaining. It’s worth noting, though, that most of the film’s amusement relies on the quirky spirit of its enigmatic subject, rather than on the narrative work of its documentarians. One might view this dynamic as the goal of nonscripted biographical cinema; others might regard it as a missed opportunity for director Kim to command a sense of auteurship over her work. Nevertheless, the film’s academic faculties make it worth the watch. Why curl up with a book when you can feast your eyes on Paik smashing his TV screen with a jackhammer?

Contact Piper Samuels at 


MARCH 24, 2023